One hundred years ago people and politicians around the globe were contemplating a new world order following more than four years of war. In Britain, January 1919 and the following months were marked by strikes, civil unrest and military mutinies. The flu pandemic continued its deathly march. The month also saw the beginning of the Paris Peace Conference which lasted into the summer concluding with five treaties formally ending the war – including the Versailles Treaty signed 28 June – and the formation of the League of Nations.
As a nation we have spent the last four years commemorating the centenary of the First World War (FWW). A hundred years on from this cataclysmic event and we are living with its legacy – with regional conflicts that have their origins in the war; with advances in medicine (reconstructive surgery, improved anaesthesia); with the music, art, literature and poetry produced during and after the war; with universal suffrage; and with a landscape shaped by war.
But what of the legacy of these commemorations? What will future generations find when they delve into early 21st century archives and history books, looking for evidence of how we remembered? Without doubt they will find an amazing amount of new, high quality research that has changed our understanding of the Great War. But have the commemorations reflected this changed narrative or have they reinforced the myths and iconography associated with First World War and which are embedded in our collective memory? Some historians are asking whether the last four years have been a lost opportunity.
From a personal point of view it feels as though much of the national commemoration did focus on traditional themes and symbols such as the mud and blood of the western front, the experience of the war poets, the silhouetted soldier. There have been some stunning artistic responses to the centenary, commissioned by 14-18 Now, including Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, Jeremy Deller’s We’re Here Because We’re Here, Danny Boyle’s Pages in the Sea and film-maker Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old.
But these have also drawn criticism. 14-18 Now estimates that 35 million people engaged with their commissioned events, but historians Professors Maggie Andrews, of the University of Worcester, and Sarah Lloyd, of the University of Hertfordshire, question whether people critically engaged or merely encountered them. Were these national events, exhibitions and installations sufficiently challenging of historical myths?
There has been much work on myth-busting over the past four years but it can be tough going up against advertising executives and picture editors who are not historians. An enduring myth, reinforced by TV adverts and wrongly credited photographs, is that the Christmas Truce of 1914 happened throughout the western front and that football matches were organised between German and British troops. Neither is an accurate picture of what happened. (Check out Dan Snow’s mythbusting articles for the BBC.)
At a regional and local level, however, I feel very positive about the projects and events that have taken place. Over the last four years much of my work as an education officer has focused on researching Wiltshire’s role in the First World War and passing on that learning to others, especially primary school teachers and pupils keen to make the most of the local history study that is part of their curriculum.
Another aspect of my work has been supporting other organisations in delivering the educational side of their FWW projects. My colleagues in archives and local studies have also been busy acquiring new collections and publications that support the study of the Great War.
The number and range of FWW projects in Wiltshire has been impressive and sadly I cannot list all of them, but a good place to start is the History Centre’s own Wiltshire at War – Community Stories project.
As part of our new Facebook page we have been running a weekly feature using local newspapers from 100 years ago, “The Times This Week”. This has provided a unique perspective on Wiltshire’s history, charting the development of events 100 years ago in real time, and revealing otherwise forgotten stories of Wiltshire’s past.
Lovely incidental stories have emerged such as the two Bradford workmen engaged in painting the Gasometer who neglected to note the vessel was charging and so increasing in height, and upon finishing the job found themselves stranded with their ladder some distance below them! Eventually their plight was noticed and they were rescued through the provision of a longer ladder.
Unsurprisingly, the primary focus for much of the newspaper was the War and the paper has revealed insights into lives on the front line and on the home front.
Letters to Home
In a letter to his aunt, Percy Howell gave a detailed account of Christmas in the trenches and the famous Christmas truce. The two lines of trenches only being 200 yards apart, Howell describes hearing the German band singing on Christmas Eve, of joining in with the singing and starting a conversation. He stated ‘they did not fire a round, and of course, we were not allowed to fire either.’ After continuing the conversation throughout the night, the Germans began to come out of the trenches. He describes how, ‘on the guarantee that neither side fired’ they met half-way, shook hands, and shared cigars. He states how they Germans are ‘as fed up as we are’ and that they were ‘as friendly on Christmas Day as if they belonged to the British Army’.
Howell ends with a sobering:
“I can tell you it seems good not to hear the roar of big guns. Anyone joining us today would hardly know there was a war on, but by this time tomorrow I expect we shall have to keep our heads under, or we may stop a bullet.”
Other letters home have a rather different tone, such as a slightly cheeky letter from Private W.P. Bright of the R.A.M.C., British Expeditionary Force to his former employer Mr. J.H. Buckle of the High Street in Chippenham.
Obviously on good terms, and taken in the right spirit, a football was duly dispatched by Mr Buckle.
Reports from Returned Soldiers: A Remarkable Story of Daring Escape
On Saturday December 12th 1914 The Wiltshire Times published a report from Sergeant-Major Burke stationed at Corsham with the 3rd Battalion, Scots Guards. It is a remarkable story and extremely vividly recounted and is worth describing in detail here. It tells of his escape through enemy lines, thanks to the kindness and bravery of strangers…